Thank you from us to you!

To our fellow science lovers!

As we wrap up Star Wars week, we would like to thank you, our readers, for being a part of this blog. We started the Science ACEs with the hope that we could spread our love and interest of science to everyone. We’ve existed for less than a year and we already have views from all over the world! We can’t say thank you enough for letting us write posts about topics we’re passionate about. We hope that this blog has taught you some new things or just reminded you how cool science is.

We’re going to take a bit of a break over the next few weeks, but we hope that you’ll join us again after the holidays. We’ll be back in January with new posts about all sorts of cool topics!

Happy Holiday from the Science ACEs and thanks for sharing in the love of science with us!
Michelle Rubin, Editor-in-Chief
Jessica, Editor
The Motley Advocate, Editor

 

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Star War Q&A Part 2: The Tech in Star Wars

We’re continuing with our Q&A session with Brad! Today we’re talking about the technology in Star Wars.

[Brad]: Let’s start with a big one.  To my knowledge, we’re no closer to Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel than we were in 1977 when Star Wars debuted, but are we getting closer?  When could interstellar travel become a reality?

[Biotechie]: Faster than light travel is something which will take a long time to achieve, if it is something that is even possible. Currently, NASA and others are focused on increasing current space travel speeds so we can better visit and explore the area around us. If we still traveled at the speeds that took us to the moon, significant time would pass before we made it to Mars or beyond. No matter where you choose to go, you also have to worry about having enough fuel to get there. This is why projects such as NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) exist. The NEXT project focuses on learning to better utilize ion propulsion, basically using an electrical source to hit Xenon gas with electrons. This generates Xenon ions, which are charged and can be used to generate a tiny amount of thrust. This isn’t enough for a spacecraft to take off, but these thrusters can operate for a very long time, generating speeds of over 200,000 mph in space if they are allowed to run long enough.

NASA is already using this technology in unmanned spacecraft, and though more efficient than anything we currently have, it does have drawbacks. Fortunately, maintaining electricity is as easy as using solar power and storing power in batteries. The worry is the supply of Xenon. Though the Dawn spacecraft could run for 27h on just 10 oz of the gas, eventually it would run out, and there may not be efficient methods to produce more. This isn’t warp drive, but a new drive called the electromagnetic drive (EM) has been studied for over 15 years, and recently was tested by NASA to see if there was truth behind all of the hype. It is thought that the EM drive could produce thrust with only electrical input, but without rocket fuel or other additional fuel sources.

[Brad]: Let me tap into the expanded universe a little bit here:  Some of the Star Wars (particularly Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn) address the idea of colonizing and exploring uncharted/unknown space via a massive generation ship (a ship where the initial crew will die long before the ship reaches its destination, but their descendants will continue the mission).  How economical is the idea of a generation ship?  When can we expect to send our first colonists off this world?

[Biotechie]: Our opinion is that colonization of far-off planets is a very long time off. We will not see it in our lifetime. However, Japan plans to visit the moon in 2018, and NASA is currently recruiting for its next Astronaut Class, which includes training for the Mars Mission. NASA aims to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030 . The success of these missions and those leading up to them will determine how soon we can send humans beyond Mars. Generation ships could be plausible, but they would have to be self-sufficient. With astronauts on the International Space Station only recently eating their first station-grown lettuce, we’re on our way, but currently the station survives on supplies shipments from Earth, which would not be feasible on any true space journey, especially one out of our solar system. In addition, we don’t yet know the effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and growing up in space. While we push technology forward, we will have to let the photos New Horizons is sending us back of Pluto suffice.

[Brad]: Though this gets discussed every time people look at the science of Star Wars, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t bring up Lightsabers. All right, ACEs, I’ve heard rumors that we’re actually getting kind of close.  Any truth to that?

[Bryan]: Lightsabers are super cool, but at first glance they seem to break all sorts of rules. How do they stop at the correct 3-foot distance? Are they light, or a laser, or plasma? How do Jedis not need welders’ masks to use those things? Lightsabers may never be a real thing, (besides, Niel DeGrasse Tyson prefers blasters) but we are discovering and using things that share certain properties with lightsabers. First, scientists have discovered a way to make photons (packets of light) interact with other photons. This is absolutely necessary for the lightsabers to interact with each other to have awesome duels. Maybe lightsabers are the future take on plasma cutters.These are high energy tools that ionize gas into plasma to make a super hot jet that can cut through metal like Qui-Gon cutting through the door in the Trade Federation ship.  However, today’s plasma cutters require large battery packs and can only produce millimeter long beams making them very impractical for fighting.

[Brad]: Blaster guns – Over at Wookieepedia (a site where I can get lost for hours), they have a great, detailed article on how blaster guns operate within the context of the Star Wars universe.  Give it a read, and let me know: How physically possible are the blasters of Star Wars? Are they close to any of the “laser guns” we have now?  What are the differences?

[Bryan]: I’ve read it and sadly I’m not convinced these could be real either. The blasters of Star Wars ionize gas, combine it with high energy light, and focus it through a crystal to shoot a slug or bolt of energy. Anytime you hear about a crystal doing something in science fiction, you should be skeptical. Crystals in the proper shape can focus or refract light, but not any sort of matter. The gas molecules in the blaster cannot get through the crystal molecules the same way that light can and would stop right there, maybe causing the blaster to explode.

Laser guns, though, are different. These seem to send invisible beams of energy at lightspeed with explosive results. These weapons are able to make pinpoint strikes against moving targets and may someday be implemented in a missile defense shield (like the Strategic Defense Initiative AKA Reagan’s Star Wars program). Another project I’ve found is the US Air Force’s project MARAUDER. This project which seems to have been cancelled about 20 years ago was looking into making a coaxial railgun that would sling bolts of plasma around perhaps like a blaster.

[Brad]: While they don’t play as conscious a role in  Star Wars as they do in Star Trek, shields are everywhere.  Deflector shields protect the Death Star, imperial star destroyers, the Millennium Falcon.  Personal energy shields are a common item to pick up in many Star Wars video games, providing a living body protection against blaster shots.  Where do we stand on shielding technology?  Or energy barriers, like those that prevent a young Obi-Wan Kenobi from saving his master Qui-Gon Jin?

[Bryan]: Deflector shields have a shot at being real someday! For decades we’ve been sending radio signals around the world by deflecting them off of the Earth’s ionosphere. In principle all we would need is a large magnetic field that could hold plasma around the ship or person to deflect lasers. This idea may also be implemented (maybe without the plasma) to shield astronauts from the sun’s radiation during long flights.

As for that energy barrier, that’s trickier. What we want is some sort of energy barrier that prevents physical objects from passing without being super hot. A wall of plasma would be an effective barrier, but not a force field. Technology exists today to create a sort of force barrier to protect vehicles from shockwaves. Boeing is patenting a system that detects an incoming shockwave and emits energy to partially nullify it protecting the vehicle from damage. This is an example of energy cancelling out energy, but maybe someday it can be changed to energy behaving like a physical shield. We’ll keep our eyes on the particle physicists.

[Brad]: This one has bothered me in all science fiction for a long time.  What the heck are scanners?  How do they work?  The Imperials scan an escape pod in Episode IV; “Hold your fire.  There’re no life forms on board.”  How did they know that?  Luke scans the planet Dagobah in Episode V; “I’m not picking up any cities or technology.  Massive life-form readings, though.”  What is a scanner in today’s sense?  How does a computer “look” at something and recognize it’s pieces, its molecular makeup?  Can a computer do this without a human to interpret the data?  Seriously, if you guys answer any of my questions, please make it be this one!

[Rogers]: A “scanner” could be thought of as any type of instrumentation that can be used to analyze the environment or a target, and we can actually determine a lot of the same characteristics as our young Jedi hero in a galaxy far, far away. Some of the simplest to understand “scanners” that we commonly use today would be things like radar arrays and telescopes; things that can give us a general idea about the size, location and appearance of an object or planet. More complicated instruments can tell us much more from great distances, like what a planet is made of and whether it might support life similar to that on Earth.

We regularly deploy several of these ‘scanners’ when monitoring our own planet, usually in the form of satellites. They are often equipped with things like radar (to detect objects and their movement), optical sensors (for generating pictures), and infrared sensors (for both imaging and detecting heat signatures). In addition, the ability to detect and transmit near-microwave radio signals is commonly used in communications satellites. When a bridge officer “scans for lifeforms,” my best interpretation is that they are reading infrared scans from outside the ship or, more probably, by linking to sensors within the ship.  

By themselves, radar, infrared sensors, and radio signals can provide a considerable amount of information about a planet or object from space. Used individually or in conjunction, we can map the surface of a planet, as well as detect common forms of long-range communication. This can give us a picture of whether a planet has any civilizations and how technically developed these civilizations are.

In addition, we have more exotic sensors that can provide even more information. Magnetometers on satellites and orbital telescopes can measure magnetic fields, often generated by planets with metallic cores or some significant source for the generation of an electric current. You can imagine that this would also be useful when detecting another spacecraft. A spectrograph can look at the wavelengths of light, both visible and invisible, being reflected from a planet. Since elements reflect distinct spectra of light, the makeup of the planet can be determined.

Most of these instruments provide a readout that can be interpreted by the scientist operating the instruments, or results that can be fed into a computer algorithm to provide a set of the most-likely predictions. Using these types of instruments, it is possible for us to not only locate planets, but also assess their make-up and ability to support life. While we cannot currently just look at a region from space and detect “lifeforms” other than through visual confirmation, our ability to “scan” a planet or potentially a spaceship for information does not seem all that far off from a Star Destroyer’s!

THE AUTHORS:
ScienceAces1BIOTECHIE IS THE SCIENCEACES SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER FOR TWITTER@SCIENCEACES AND FACEBOOK.COM/SCIENCEACES AND A RISING 3RD YEAR PHD STUDENT RESEARCHING CELL FUNCTION, CHOLESTEROL, AND OBESITY. YOU CAN FOLLOW HER PERSONAL TWITTER @BIOTECH_BABE.
Brown%2cRogers-biopicROGERS BROWN IS A 4TH YEAR DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY GRADUATE STUDENT. HE IS INTERESTED IN BECOMING A SCIENCE EDUCATOR WHEN HE “GROWS UP”, AND SPENDS HIS FREE TIME EXPLORING SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY IN VARIOUS MEDIA.
2013-12-04 14.06.58BRYAN VISSER IS A 2ND YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT STUDYING DNA REPLICATION. HE PLANS ON MAKING A CAREER OF SCIENCE ADVOCACY WORKING AT A MUSEUM OR IN WASHINGTON. HE ALSO ENJOYS BOARD GAMES AND BALLROOM DANCING.
BRAD HIGHLAND IS AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR FEATURE FILMS, COMMERCIALS, TELEVISION, AND INTERNET PRODUCTIONS. A LIFE-TIME STAR WARS AND STAR TREK FAN, BRAD HAS ALWAYS HAD A KEEN INTEREST IN THE “SCIENCE” OF QUALITY STORYTELLING.  WHEN NOT ON SET, BRAD ENGAGES IN SUCH HEALTHY STRESS-RELIEVING TECHNIQUES AS PLAYING VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES AND PLAYING THE VERY EMO WORKS OF BEETHOVEN ON HIS PIANO. YOU CAN FOLLOW HIS MUSINGS ON TWITTER @BRADHIGHLANDER AND READ HIS MOVIE REVIEWS ATHTTP://THEHIGHLANDERREVIEWS.BLOGSPOT.COM.

Star Wars Q&A Part I: The Biology in Star Wars

star_wars_logo

The Star Wars logo. Copyright LucasFilm and Disney. Fair Trade.

[ScienceACEs: Biotechie]: As the Science ACEs, we love being scientists, but sometimes it does take a little magic out of a movie. In my excitement for Star
Wars: The Force Awakens
, I began to wonder if my non-science friends had any interest in how the scientific discoveries we have today compared to those shown in Star Wars.

I contacted a friend of mine from college, Brad Highland, who is currently an assistant director in L.A. Who better to pose questions about Star Wars and science than someone who knows the saga like the back of his hand?

[Brad]: I was born in 1988, when the original Star Wars trilogy was already available on VHS. I’ve literally waited all my life for Episode VII. I know the franchise inside and out, and, with that in mind and with The Force Awakens mere days away, here are some questions I pose for the team at Science ACEs:

[Brad]: Let’s take a look at medicine and biology. Luke Skywalker gets his hand cut off in Episode V and receives a robotic replacement that looks identical to an actual human hand.  It even responds to his neural impulses.  Where do we stand on artificial limbs like that?

[Biotechie]: Prosthetics that are interfaced with and controlled by the brain exist, though they are still not quite as functional as the limb that is missing, and some of them require major surgery to interface with the brain. These prosthetics come in many shapes and sizes, depending on what the patient needs. Some look similar to normal body parts, and others look more like octopus arms. One major hurdle prosthetics must overcome in order to mimic natural limbs is the ability to feel different sensations. Currently, this limits how rapid and precise movements can be. The way prosthetics interface with our brains cannot reach full potential until these devices can effectively communicate sensations like pressure and heat. However, currently the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is testing new types of neural interface in the sensory cortex of the brain to fix this problem. Preliminary tests with patients and their prosthetic hands shows promise; they were able to tell which fingers on their prosthetic hand were touched. A new type of “skin” for prosthetics has also been developed that can detect force of touch or heat (and even sound) using electrical impulses. So are we at Vader-level prosthetics? No, not yet, but the groundwork has been laid, and we expect prosthetics to continue to improve. The next big debate: are prosthetics actually conferring an unfair advantage in sports?

[Brad]: Anakin Skywalker had all of his limbs hacked off, his body burnt, and, apparently, extensive lung damage.  With the tech we have, could we have given Anakin a better quality of life than the Emperor did with the Vader suit?

[Biotechie]: Today, someone injured like Anakin Skywalker was would be very lucky to survive. We have successful limb transplants, but the degree of functionality varies, and is almost never as good as the body part which was lost. More than likely, the patient would be given prosthetic limbs. As far as the damaged lungs go, lung transplant is really the only viable option. The Vader Suit is way more highly advanced than anything we have, today, and it allows Anakin to be nearly normal, with the exception of his evil tendencies, propensity for black cloaks, and awkward breathing.

[Brad]: General Grievous is little more than lungs, heart, brain, and a few other organs housed in an extremely durable robot body.  How close are we to living in a world where dying humans could just throw their organs in a robot suit and keep going?

[Biotechie]: Currently, medicine does not have a way to generate fool-proof organs for transplant. Failed organs today are replaced with donor organs from other individuals. The problem with this is that there is a chance of organ death or rejection by the recipient immune system. Ultimately, these patients have to take medication to suppress their immune system for the remainder of their lives.

However, scientists are working on making better organs for this purpose, and there are two main directions the research has proceeded. One direction involves trying to understand the basic biology behind how organs are formed. Scientists can generate certain types of stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), from adult tissues. These cells are still being researched, but scientists have generated small mini organs called organoids from these cells that have heart-like properties, including the ability to beat.

Another research area involves dissolving all of the cells in an organ, leaving only the structural matrix behind. This looks like a pale-white ghost version of the original organ. Then iPSCs from the person that needs to receive the organ or other donor cells are seeded into the matrix to grow. These methods have not been perfected for most organs, and large amounts of basic research are still needed to really understand how the different types of cells in an organ come together and how to get them to work together in an artificial setting.

Ultimately, this leads to the question of whether we will just be able to renew our organs indefinitely. Ideally, we could do so, though this would lead to major ethical considerations which we will not get into, today. There are many mechanisms to aging, many of which are still unknown to us or misunderstood. Even if we could generate new organs, the brain still ages, and we know once we lose our brain, we lose our sense of self.

[Brad]: Emperor Palpatine shoots Force lightning from his fingertips.  Frickin’ lightning!  Just how powerful is the human body when it comes to generating electricity?  Could that energy be channeled into an external current?  You know, like for shocking one’s enemies?

[Biotechie]: Researchers have already looked into this to a degree. The very fact that we’re alive as the giant multicellular organism that we are depends on electrical gradients within cells and communication throughout the body utilizing electrical impulses, especially communication in the brain and for stimulation of pumping in the heart. Thunderstorm clouds hold up to 100 million volts of potential. However, we ourselves can only generate up to 100 millivolts, which is enough for us to zap doorknobs with a little sting.

However, it is the current (measured in amps) we need to be the most worried about. The average lightning strike is about 30,000 amps. Between 100 and 200 MILLIamps can kill you. The amount of voltage and current in a lightning strike are so high that you would likely die or at the very least have irreversible damage. Our bodies are just not capable of producing that type of current or voltage. Odds are, even if you could produce that amount of electricity, it would cause irreversible damage and likely your death as well. There would have to be a very good reason for using this as it would be the ultimate sacrifice.

[Brad]: Attack of the Clones – Do I really want to know the current status on human cloning and eugenics?

[Biotechie]: We’re scientists, not Sith Lords. Most of us use gene editing in our research to try and answer questions about how our cells work or why changes to good genes cause disease. This information can be used not only to learn how processes in our cells work, but also to test out treatments on cells in a dish first to make sure they are safe before we let you try it.

Gene editing is something that has caused extreme controversy and sparked many ethical debates since it began, but these are things that have become talking points again now that we have discovered biological tools that make editing DNA easier than ever. In particular, it reached the forefront earlier this year when a group of Chinese researchers published that they had edited genes in human embryos (on embryos that were deemed unsuitable for in vitro fertilization and would have been discarded). Because of this, scientists had an International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington D.C. earlier this month. There will be no test tube babies with edited genes in the near future; the panel concluded that pregnancies resulting from sperm, eggs, or embryos that are genetically altered in the test tube would be irresponsible and unethical.

However, they did support using gene editing techniques to learn more about biology (and to treat people who already have these diseases). There are already clinical trials to use a safe virus to deliver a working copy of the gene to repair the effects of cystic fibrosis in the lungs of adult patients with some success. Healthy immune cells are being taken from patients and genetically modified to target and kill cancer cells such as leukemias with great success.

Gene editing on non-infant human patients will continue, and this will improve the quality of life for many patients in the near future. However, at least in the United States, scientists agree that human cloning is unethical, as is generation of the “perfect human.” There will be no attack of the human clones.

[Brad]: There are a number of species that share both mammalian and reptilian traits, such as Wampas, Taun-Tauns, and Rodians.  How absurd is the idea of a mammal-reptile hybrid?  If I remember Walking with Dinosaurs correctly, I believe there was once a small creature that bridged age of dinosaurs and the age of mammals.

[Rogers]: The idea is not actually that absurd when you consider the variety of lifeforms present on just our planet. Not only is there variety between different families of organisms (like the differences between bacteria, plants, insects, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, etc.), but even some of the characteristics that we think of as defining a group often don’t apply to all the members of that group! Some examples of Earth creatures that break the norm are: sharks that give birth instead of laying eggs (which are said to be viviparous), males that give birth (seahorses), and animals that are warm-blooded milk-producers but lay eggs (monotremes like the platypus and echidna), which some could argue seem like a combination of avian and mammalian traits! In fact, the creature you mention, an ancestor of mammals known as a synapsid, does seem to possess traits of both reptiles and mammals.  All of this occurred on just our planet alone.  In reality though, there is no way of knowing what kind of organism would evolve on another life-supporting planet.  They may not use proteins or have DNA or even be carbon-based! There is just no way to predict one way or the other definitively. Personally, I would be surprised to find as many humanoid creatures as you see in Star Wars and other Sci-Fi universes.

[Brad]: Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle are moisture farmers, a logical occupation considering they live an a planet covered in sand.  Could Uncle Owen’s moisture vaporators be the key to ending California’s drought?

[Bryan]: Making sure people have water is very important. Moisture farmers on Tatooine likely supplied water to people in the region for crops and drinking, and these moisture vaporators must have been serious business. Taking water from the air isn’t too far-fetched: many parts of our world see dew every morning. But in a desert environment, where the humidity is lower, could it still work? The Namib Desert Beetle may have a solution. Its shell is made to capture and funnel moisture from the air to the mouth. Self-filling water bottles are being developed by members of an MIT team using technology mimicking this beetle. This may be a very practical solution for harvesting water without the need for desalinization.

Ever wondered if the tech in Star Wars could be real? Could you ever have a lightsaber? Check back tomorrow for Part II of our Q&A session with Brad for answers!

The AUTHORS:
ScienceAces1Biotechie is the ScienceACEs Social Media Manager for twitter@ScienceACEs and facebook.com/scienceaces and a rising 3rd year PhD Student researching cell function, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.
Brown%2cRogers-biopicROGERS BROWN IS A 4TH YEAR DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY GRADUATE STUDENT. HE IS INTERESTED IN BECOMING A SCIENCE EDUCATOR WHEN HE “GROWS UP”, AND SPENDS HIS FREE TIME EXPLORING SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY IN VARIOUS MEDIA.
2013-12-04 14.06.58BRYAN VISSER IS A 2ND YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT STUDYING DNA REPLICATION. HE PLANS ON MAKING A CAREER OF SCIENCE ADVOCACY WORKING AT A MUSEUM OR IN WASHINGTON. HE ALSO ENJOYS BOARD GAMES AND BALLROOM DANCING.
Brad Highland is an assistant director for feature films, commercials, television, and internet productions. A life-time Star Wars AND Star Trek fan, Brad has always had a keen interest in the “science” of quality storytelling.  When not on set, Brad engages in such healthy stress-relieving techniques as playing violent video games and playing the very emo works of Beethoven on his piano. You can follow his musings on Twitter @BradHighlander and read his movie reviews at http://thehighlanderreviews.blogspot.com.

Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops

Hyperspace_falcon

The Millennium Falcon jumping into hyperspace. Trademark Disney. Fair Trade .

There are a number of last-second escapes in Star Wars thanks to a jump into hyperspace. The ability to travel across large distances by using hyperspace is essential to the Star Wars universe where planets across this galaxy are able to communicate, trade, and participate in a collective government. How likely is it that we will be able to use warp drives and faster than light travel to reach other stars or even other galaxies within one person’s lifetime?

The only way we’ve been able to travel through space so far is through rocket propulsion. This method utilizes the law of conservation of momentum – rockets push out burning fuel and blast off with equal but opposite force. Think of two ice skaters pushing off each other. Rockets work in the same way by pushing burning fuel out of the rocket. The momentum of the fuel exiting the rocket is the same as the momentum of the rocket being pushed in the opposite direction. However, rockets have two major drawbacks for interplanetary travel. They need to carry all the fuel they require with them and no matter how much fuel they spend they cannot pass the speed of light (about 300,000,000 meters per second). The closest earth-like planet to us is 1400 light years away. If the last Roman Emperor had a rocket that could take him to this planet, he would be arriving about now. The speed of light is pretty fast, but to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs you’re going to need to do better.  

Or instead of going faster, you can make the distance shorter. The theory of relativity, which is currently our best understanding of the universe, allows for the bending and folding of space. By bending or folding space we are bringing point A and point B closer together so that, while we’re still not traveling faster than light, we are arriving at our destination in less time than it should take because the distance is shorter. All we need to do is come up with a way of doing that.

A lot of stories are coming out surrounding Eagleworks, a NASA project featuring Harold White. Lately they’ve been working on 2 projects involving next generation space travel. First is the White-Juday warp-field interferometer. A traditional interferometer shines light at a half-silvered mirror. The half-silvered mirror reflects half of the light and lets the other half straight through. A detector at the end can tell if the light travels the right distance to get out of phase. This allows us to measure the wavelength of light. What makes this setup different from other interferometers is the addition of a device that may disrupt and insert tiny bubbles in spacetime on one arm of the interferometer (pictured below). These tiny ripples would perhaps be enough to warp the path taken by half of the light and cause the light to go out of phase. While this method would detect distortions in spacetime, some scientists think that the effect is too small to measure and can easily be confused with changes in temperature.

White Juday Interferometer

In principle this effect can still be used to move a ship at warp speed. Work by the physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggest that if we were to scrunch up space in front of a ship and expand it behind the ship we’d be able to move as though going faster than the speed of light. The use of such an Alcubierre drive has a few difficulties including the requirement of anti-matter, negative energy densities, and large amounts of energy. Estimates vary for how much that might cost, but the lowest estimate with today’s technology would cost more than the world economic output for 40 years.

While this puts a damper on perhaps seeing interstellar travel within our lifetime outside of Star Wars movies, we have to remember what sort of advances humanity can make in 100 years. Think of how long it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean compared to today. Think of the internet connecting us, inspiring millions of collaborations. If we as a species continue to wonder about the vastness of space and give in to our explorer tendencies, we will make breakthrough after breakthrough to reach the stars. Just watch out for those asteroid fields.

2013-12-04 14.06.58BRYAN VISSER IS A 2ND YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT STUDYING DNA REPLICATION. HE PLANS ON MAKING A CAREER OF SCIENCE ADVOCACY WORKING AT A MUSEUM OR IN WASHINGTON. HE ALSO ENJOYS BOARD GAMES AND BALLROOM DANCING.

Finding neighbors in a galaxy far, far away

 “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” These words put us into other galaxies to meet advanced alien civilizations. Some of the most and least loved characters from Star Wars are aliens. They are instead intelligent life from other galaxies that somehow found other aliens in the galaxy and formed a cooperative government. I think we as humans share some of the explorer instinct that they have. I wonder what it took for them to find each other in their galaxy. In this post I’ll be writing about how we are doing with the search for intelligent life in our corner of the universe.

 

tatooine_sunset

Sunset on Tatooine from Star Wars. Copyright Disney. Fair Trade Use.

It’s only natural to wonder who or what else is out there, but some people make it their job to try and find the answer. What tools do they have? Astronomers at Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) work to discover new planets and moons and also search the skies for telltale radio signals produced by advanced civilizations. This nonprofit was started nearly 50 years ago in part by a man named Frank Drake. Drake is perhaps best known for his back-of-the-envelope equation estimating the number of intelligent civilizations (N) in our galaxy:

N=R*fpNeflfifc∙L.

Slide1

7starsyear*0.22planetsstar*0.001lifeformsplanet*0.10 intelligent specieslifeform*50,000 years  =7.5 intelligent species

This means that I’d predict seven and a half intelligent civilizations are out there waiting for us. If you think that intelligent life is rare then the number goes down but if you think civilizations last longer the number goes up. You can look in galaxies that make more or fewer planets. Rather than producing an answer to the question, this equation tells us what to think about when searching for intelligent life.

It may be possible that we’ve already observed signs of alien life. You may have read in September about a star that is dimming in an unusual pattern. The sharp dips in brightness shows that there is a very large object between us and that star. In the paper, researchers propose several possible explanations, including planetary debris, comets, or dust, but in interviews, the researchers and other collaboratorsSlide2 offer another explanation: alien megastructures. Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, looked at the data and said, “I was fascinated by how crazy it looked. Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.” Some of these researchers teamed up with SETI to see whether this star and its dimming might also contain the radio signals indicative of intelligent life but did not see any signals. This most likely means that the dimming is just space doing space stuff, but we cannot exclude the possibility that perhaps the civilization has particular reasons for not broadcasting radio signals or that the megastructure is a relic from a fallen empire.

allan_telescope

Closeup front view of one antenna of the Allan Telescope Array, a radio telescope for combined radio astronomy and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Fair Trade Use.

So the search continues. As our ability to look and journey into space increases I believe it’s only a matter of time until we find new life if it’s out there. The universe is a big place. I think it’d be pretty cool to find some neighbors. In my next segment I’ll be talking about warp drives and other ways of actually meeting these neighbors.

 

2013-12-04 14.06.58BRYAN VISSER IS A 2ND YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT STUDYING DNA REPLICATION. HE PLANS ON MAKING A CAREER OF SCIENCE ADVOCACY WORKING AT A MUSEUM OR IN WASHINGTON. HE ALSO ENJOYS BOARD GAMES AND BALLROOM DANCING.

World Leaders Address Climate Change in Paris

Despite recent terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere across the world, representatives from over 100 nations are meeting to discuss a plan to combat climate change at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). When asked whether the attacks threatened the planned meeting, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius replied, “No, no, no, no, no, the COP21 to be held. It will be held with enhanced security measures but it is absolutely essential action against climate change and of course it will be held.” French President Francois Hollande added “never have the stakes been so high because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life.” These sentiments about the necessity of COP21 were echoed by President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

This may have you asking, “what is happening at COP21 and why is it so important?!” Don’t worry because Sciences ACEs has got you covered.

What is being discussed at COP21?
The goal of COP21 is to make a legally binding international agreement to actively combat global warming. This would be the first such agreement in over 20 years of negotiations. Specifically, world leaders aim to limit a global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% by 2050. Scientists predict that anything beyond a  2°C increase by 2100 would cause an increase in extreme climate events, like unusually warm or cold temperatures, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis. By the end of 2015, global temperatures will reach  1°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time in the history of our planet! If things continue to do nothing, then our planet is in serious jeopardy, even by the most conservative of estimates.

What is causing climate change?

Greenhouse-effect

Left – Naturally occurring greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O)—normally trap some of the sun’s heat, keeping the planet from freezing. Right – Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are increasing greenhouse gas levels, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect. The result is global warming and unprecedented rates of climate change. Will Elder, NPS

The evidence that climate change is occurring due to human activity is robust and the data are agreed upon by an overwhelming majority of all scientists, including climate scientists. The way in which humans cause climate change is through the production of greenhouse gasses (described in the graphic above). Briefly, much of the heat emitted from the Sun moves freely through Earth’s atmosphere, but some heat is trapped, re-emitted, and warms the planet. Increased greenhouse gasses make it difficult for solar energy to escape through the atmosphere, which causes more heat to be re-emitted and higher global temperatures.

Two major sources of greenhouse gas are (1) carbon-based fuels, which produce carbon dioxide (CO2), and (2) industrial agriculture, which produces methane . Global CO2 emissions have increased nearly ten-fold since 1900 and, although methane  levels are lower, methane  has a 25 times greater impact on global warming than CO2 over a 100 year period.

What is the likelihood that COP21 will be a success?
The success of COP21 is dependent on 2 questions: 1) will countries make good on their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and 2) will those measures be enough to prevent temperatures from rising to dangerous levels?

In the U.S. and other countries, climate change is a major partisan issue. Many conservatives remain staunch climate change deniers, the Republican party often resists policies that aim to replace carbon-based fuels with renewable energy. However, the majority of liberals are in favor of a shift toward renewable energy and all three 2016 democratic presidential candidates have released comprehensive plans to address climate change. Thus, the future leadership in our country could play a major role in climate policy. However, Obama is optimistic that an agreement will be reached at COP21, and that we are taking the right steps to solve the issue of climate change.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas will be enough to prevent a 2°C increase in temperature. However, we need not look further than France itself to see that an even more extreme shift toward renewable energy is possible in developed nations. Currently, France’s energy is 90% renewable thanks to an extensive nuclear power network. Some believe France could transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

The fact that COP21 is occurring is enough to inspire hope for those wanting to see a global change in climate policy. If other countries can follow the lead of COP21’s host nation, then, at the very least, we are taking steps in the right direction to combat climate change and preserve our planet’s future.

 

For updates on COP21 follow @COP21en on twitter or visit their website.

 

AnthonyBarrasso_AvatarANTHONY BARRASSO IS THIRD YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT. CURRENTLY, HE STUDIES RETINAL DEVELOPMENT. ANTHONY’S CAREER INTERESTS INCLUDE CANCER RESEARCH, EDUCATION, AND POLITICS. OUTSIDE OF LAB, HE LIKES PLAYING WITH HIS DOG AND EATING DELICIOUS FOOD. FOLLOW ANTHONY ON TWITTER @BARRASSO67

What I Learned in P. E.

I am afraid that I uphold the scientist cliché of not being very athletic. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy some sports, particularly badminton. I also have several sports I enjoy watching, although every team I cheer for has gotten very close to winning it all and then lost, so feel free to rent me out as a fan for the other team. However, I really wouldn’t describe myself as an athletic enthusiast.

Thus you can imagine, as per cliché that Physical Education was one of my tougher classes. I could not run that fast (although I’ve now learned that having my headphones might have helped) and was never a fan of seeing how many push-ups I could do in a minute.

I imagine most articles about this subject would now talk about how some people have physical gifts while others have mental gifts.But I’m not going to go down that train of thought.Instead I am going to argue, that P.E. taught one of the most important lessons you can learn in life, especially as a scientist.

“Show some hustle out there.” I am quite certain you have heard this phrase before from at least a fictional gym teacher. The idea essentially being that you need to put in the effort. I actually got decent grades in P.E. because I had good teachers. All of my P. E. teachers believed that you earned your grade not by how fast or how strong you were, but how hard you worked and how much you improved.

I distinctly remember one day where we were doing a warm up run around the tennis courts. At the end of it, the teacher complimented those towards the back of the group that had been running the whole way, partially because several of the faster students had strolled along instead of putting in the effort.

That of course is the lesson, to try your best at what you do. I accepted long ago that there are men and women in my life who are faster than me. As a scientist, I accept the fact that there will always be people in my field who are smarter than me. But that is of no importance. What is important for my work is that I put in the effort.

Also, it is important how much you improve. One of the things that my dad always tells me is to be a life long learner. Every day you should try to grow and learn something new. As a scientist everyone is at a different stage of their career. But the best students are not the ones coming in with the most knowledge but those who gain the most by the time they leave.

So there may be a cliché that scientists are not very athletic. I can’t support this as I have seen many athletic scientists in my life. But even when the cliché holds true, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the smartest people are probably those who paid attention in P.E.

THE AUTHOR:
Slide1THE MOTLEY ADVOCATE: I AM A CHRISTIAN, A BIOLOGIST, A FICTION WRITER AND AN AMATEUR AT MANY OTHER THINGS. MY ARTICLES ARE OFTEN SOME COMBINATION OF THESE ELEMENTS. I DON’T HAVE A TWITTER BUT YOU CAN E-MAIL ME THROUGH THE SCIENCE ACES E-MAIL (SCIENCE.ACES15@GMAIL.COM) .